Put a pause on that PDF production

Have you stopped to consider why you are putting certain content on your website in the form of PDFs? I’m going to hazard a guess here and suggest that you do it that way because you have always done it that way; am I right? Back when you first got a website, you had a plethora of print documents in the form of PDFs. A designer had spent lots of time creating those pretty print publications, so it made sense to add those to your website, correct?

pdf-noBut don’t worry. Just because you’ve always done something one way doesn’t mean you can’t start doing things differently. Most likely, when your website was launched, smartphones were not in every purse and pocket, and folks were viewing your website on big ol’ desktop computers. People maybe had slow dial-up connections or no internet at all at home, so they printed out a lot of web pages. I certainly did! Kids heading off to college this year don’t even remember those days. A whole generation has come of age since the internet was considered a novelty.

Usability matters

The true beauty of PDFs is that no matter what size or style of screen they are viewed on, they will always be in the exact same format in which the creator set it up. This is an important consideration for things that will be printed out, like resumes and forms that have to be signed with a pen and mailed in. This is not an important consideration, however, when it comes to ease of reading articles online.

Think of the newspaper, for example. The way the newspaper is laid out on paper makes sense: There are several columns with the first few paragraphs of a number of stories spread out across a large sheet of paper. Because you can easily move that big piece of paper around in front of your face, you can easily see all those headlines in just a few seconds. But doing the same exercise with a miniature version of the newspaper front page with your mouse or your finger on a touchscreen is not nearly as quick and easy. If you were to view the entire front page of the newspaper on your smartphone, you wouldn’t be able to read any of it unless you zoomed in on one area and then slowly scooted the image across and then down, etc. This is why when you go to a newspaper’s website on your mobile device it looks nothing like the physical paper. What works for the printed page does not necessarily translate well to the online page.

Mobile matters

The share of Americans that owned smartphones in 2016 was 77%, up from just 35% in Pew Research Center’s first survey of smartphone ownership conducted in 2011. Americans owning tablets increased to 51% in 2016 from 8% in 2011. As data plans get cheaper and cheaper, Americans are even more likely to surf the internet via smartphones or tablets, neither of which are ideal devices for viewing PDFs. Nor are they typically set up for sending files to a printer.

It can be enlightening to do an audit of your website’s analytics to see what kind of devices visitors are using when viewing your site. Additionally, it can be helpful to view the bounce rate on various devices. (A bounce is when a user says, “peace out, I gotta bounce” and leaves your site after viewing only one page. Read more on the importance of the bounce rate.)  On one of my client’s websites that uses a large number of PDFs, the usage is 82% via desktop, 14% via mobile, and 4% via tablet. The bounce rate on desktop computers is 32%. On mobile, it’s 50%, and on tablets, it’s 42%. What can be inferred from this information is that a large number of this client’s users view their website on a desktop computer, but the 18% who view the site on smartphones or tablets are more likely to bounce after viewing a single page. This is most likely due to the site as a whole not being optimized for mobile viewing, which includes PDFs that are not optimized for mobile viewing.

Stranded in a silo

When a website is easy to use and navigate, no matter where you find yourself on the website, it is clear how to find other related information. This could come in the form of drop-down menus, sidebars, buttons, advertisements, a search bar, etc., all of which would be part of the website as a whole. PDFs, however, do not typically have those elements. After viewing a PDF, a user is often stranded in a silo as there is no clear direction to take afterward. For a website owner, that is not a good position for your audience. Pretty much the only option after reading a PDF is to close the tab and go elsewhere. In other words, to “bounce.”

The way forward

To a business owner, it can be daunting to face the prospect of turning hundreds of PDFs into mobile-friendly web pages. If the majority of the old PDFs on your site remain important because of the written content they contain, then turning them into web pages is actually not too tricky. If the PDFs are image-heavy and you are concerned with the content looking as close to the way it does on the PDF, that is still absolutely doable but will be a bit more time-consuming.

And then going forward, you will have options. Maybe that 2-page article that the majority of your audience will read online doesn’t need to be put in a PDF format next time. Or, another option would be to do a few rounds of offering both versions (webpage and PDF) and see which one gets more views.

What have been your experiences with using PDFs online?

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